Paper Mountains

When Biddy was born, she was tiny, compact. Barely cried, even. Just stared soulfully at everyone, like she was taking their measure and trying to figure what it meant. Auntie June taught her simple origami when she was four, and she’s been folding ever since.

“It’ll help her fine motor skills and develop language processing,” Auntie June had said. “You should take her to swimming lessons or gymnastics, too, let her feel pressure while she moves.” I’d stood in the kitchen where she and Momma talked and watched Biddy in the backyard, walking like she wasn’t always sure where to put her feet.

Don’t ask me how any of that worked, but it did. Auntie June started with flowers, talking about shapes and nature, what was happening around them as they folded together. Then she showed her how to fold birds and butterflies, then turtles and fish and the sun.

It was amazing how Biddy picked up a little square of paper and struggled to fold it into a thing, but within weeks, she’d mastered the precision and technique to get exactly the crisp or delicate fold she needed. Soon, Auntie June was learning from Biddy, intricate designs that required two or ten or twenty squares of paper to form long dragons and intricate geometry.

Momma and Daddy took us on a cruise that summer, and the first night, Biddy had stared, fascinated and delighted, when she saw her pajamas folded into the shape of a teddy bear on her bed.

“How?” she asked, but my parents had taken a separate room and didn’t hear her speak her first word. I watched, breathless at the gift she’d offered me as she unfolded the pajamas, staring at each stage of the design as she did. And then she refolded them, identical to the teddy bear she’d seen. She giggled, shook it straight, and refolded it. I laughed when I realized she’d found a way to recreate that teddy bear, only larger and more realistic.

“Amazing, Biddy. You’re so talented!” I told her.

Biddy smiled with pride.

The next morning, I woke to Biddy snuggled against me, her breath light and hot on my chest. The blankets on her bed were folded into a large, intricate cruise ship, with balconies and windows formed from small pinches and folds, a gift for the staff who’d folded her pajamas. The hull of the linen ship was huge, longer somehow than the blanket that comprised it. She’d used sheets for finer flourishes, folding them into impossibly small details across the whole design, weaving into and out of the blanket as if the fabric weren’t solid.

When we got home, Biddy began folding everything that could be folded and some things that shouldn’t. One morning, I woke to find my toothbrush like a beautiful tulip, the bristles woven into almost crystalline petals, unusable and yet I would die before I’d throw it away.

I grabbed a green toothbrush from the box we kept for guests and found Biddy in the backyard, looking at a grasshopper.


She turned and smiled at me.

“That tulip was so, so pretty. Can you make something for Momma like that? Maybe a cricket like that one?” I pointed to the creature that had captured her attention a moment ago.

She nodded and held out her hand for the toothbrush.

I still don’t know how she did it. I watched her stare down at the toothbrush like she was taking its measure, and then she just folded it. Like it was origami paper.

“Wow, baby sister. You are the most talented little girl in the world.” I cupped her cheek in my hand, but only for a second. She didn’t like to be touched for long.

When she started school, they gave her tests and a special designation that meant she needed extra services. Biddy spent most of her days folding, but she started talking, very suddenly, in complex sentences, like she had ingested the language Auntie June offered her, but she’d found no good reason to use it until then. Once she could communicate with the teachers, she advanced through school quickly.

I was studying math in college when she started middle school. It was full of kids with shit parents who didn’t teach them not to be assholes. One of those assholes in PE thought it would be funny to grab her and listen to her scream. He got what he wanted, but she didn’t scream for long.

The teachers intervened in time, but he still had to have surgery to repair the damage.

I called her from school and asked her if she was okay.

“No,” she said. “I thought I could fold him into a better person, but I hurt him.” When we hung up, she was still crying.

She joined me in college when she was 15 and I was in the master’s program. In a lot of ways, she reverted to her youngest self, constantly observing, taking the measure of the world she learned about. In her dorm room, I’d sometimes study with her while she folded. I could watch for hours, her precision with each new fold allowing the thickness of the paper to grow exponentially, beyond what the strength of her hands or the strength of the paper should allow. She always stopped before the design was too big to fit in her trash can.

I wish I knew what made her snap in the end. Was it the pressure of being a smart kid in college? Or the pressure of being different? Had a prof said something to her? Had I? Maybe some asshole whose parents never taught him better decided to betray her boundaries, and rather than hurt him by trying to fold him into a better person, she left.

All I know is she took a sheaf of green engineer’s paper with her, and a week later, there was a mountain in the mostly uninhabited eastern part of the state, beautiful and craggy with faint green lines making a grid of the slopes. Trees that had formed the forest crept up its sides, blooming from the paper like they’d grown there naturally. The attention from the news stations eventually chased her back down again. The mountain, though, is still there, perfectly placed, an aberration that somehow did nature a favor.

When she came back, I bought a small house in need of a lot of repairs. While I work on my degree, she stays inside, finding things to fold and ideas to explore in anonymity. She could look sad, probably should given she’s not living the life I know she wanted for herself. But when I wake in the morning or when I come home at night, she always wears a delighted grin.

“Look what I figured out now,” she’ll say and show me something new.

Sometimes it’s an impossibly folded object of art. Sometimes it’s a pattern that makes my eyes cross. Sometimes it’s something altogether different, like the time she opened her cupped hands to reveal the air between her palms moving in a way I could only see in my peripheral vision and that hurt to stare at directly. When she shows me these things that shouldn’t be folded, she scares me a little. But I know she only wants to improve them, to grow them, to create art or unimaginable representations of life.

Most times, as I sit in silence in my room mulling over her latest revelation, I pull out the toothbrush wonders she made when she was little and think about what else Biddy could fold, what sciences she might unlock, and if we’ll be able to recognize when she’s folded this world and everyone in it into something better.

<<< Return to SFF